MONROE, CT — First Selectman Ken Kellogg wants to create a new director of community and economic development position, so the full-time town employee can work closely with the Economic Development Commission, town officials and businesses to grow Monroe’s commercial tax base.
Kellogg’s budget proposal was inspired by the boost Monroe’s economy received from William Holsworth’s work as community and economic recovery coordinator, a temporary position the first selectman created last June to help struggling businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has been extremely successful, but this is a shift to a different role with a different structure,” Kellogg told the Town Council at a budget workshop Monday.
Kellogg credits Holsworth and EDC Chairman Ray Giovanni, who is also president of the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, for making it work.
Town Council members reviewed Kellogg’s proposal to create a Community and Economic Development Department with a $96,800 budget: $85,000 for salary, $11,050 for marketing and development and $750 for office expenses.
Councilman Jason Maur noted the position still has to be approved in the town pay plan and have a job description. When he asked if the position will have to be posted, Kellogg said yes.
Kellogg envisions a community and economic development director as someone who will have a significant role in applying for grant funding, which he said would also improve work flow at the Finance Department.
The proposal was well received by the Town Council.
“I’m so glad to see this position,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Aguilar. “I think it’s really important for the town. I think it will do great things for the town. Ray works so hard as a volunteer and I’m so glad he’s getting help.”
Aguilar asked what metrics the town will use to evaluate the new position, wondering if it may include a list of applications or of people reaching out to the department for assistance.
In his current role, Holsworth said a list of businesses that are opening in town is being kept, as well as those who have applications before Monroe’s land use boards.
“We’re tracking those, making sure all of the regulations that we have on the books are appropriate for those businesses, and we’re a following all of that through the process with zoning forms, building permits, health permits, to make sure these businesses are able to open up with the least amount of impedance as possible,” Holsworth said.
Giovanni said the EDC’s primary goal is improving the customer experience aspect for businesses seeking assistance from the town. He said Holsworth has been instrumental in businesses going through the process and opening their doors more quickly.
Aguilar asked if there is a list of vacant commercial properties that is being kept current. Giovanni said he and Holsworth have been working on one since last year, detailing all Monroe has to offer for commercial brokers’ review.
“We have such a great story to tell, we can’t wait to get it out there,” Giovanni said. “We’re gonna let every broker know Monroe is in a renaissance. I’m very proud to say we’re going to have tremendous growth, a tremendous record and a great reputation.”
He said the list of commercial vacancies has been shrinking over the past seven months.
In the new grand list, Holsworth said statistics from Assessor Justin Feldman show about 60 businesses departed, while “a little over” 120 businesses came in. He said much of that growth came from home-based businesses.
He said the town has already replaced about half of the businesses that left or closed down.
“We have many more trade name certificates applied for than being withdrawn,” Holsworth said, adding there were around 30 applications and eight removals.
Giovanni marveled at the growth of new businesses at a time when most would assume the pandemic had led to huge losses. He gave a lot of credit to Holsworth for his “tenacity” and ability to keep people engaged in the process.
Holsworth said they are also tracking applications for projects and for text amendments to expand uses in industrial zones that are before the Planning and Zoning Commission.
“The average person wouldn’t realize there was this much growth in the past seven months and we’re proud of our accomplishments to date,” Giovanni said.
Aguilar said she commends Holsworth, Giovanni, Kellogg and anyone else involved with the economic efforts, adding she heard about the many restaurant closings in the state due to COVID, while Monroe’s remain open.
Holsworth had worked with the Planning and Zoning Commission and Town Hall staff to allow outdoor dining for restaurants, providing flexibility during warmer months.
Vincent Mangiacopra had served as Monroe’s economic development coordinator during the Thomas Buzi administration, but when Steve Vavrek became first selectman, the Republican eliminated the position with a budget cut in 2010.
At the time, Vavrek said the position is protected by the Town Charter and could be funded during another budget cycle.
Since then, Democrats on the Town Council have tried to have the position restored, but faced resistance from the Republican majority.
On Monday, Councilwoman Dee Dee Martin, a Democrat, said, “I am excited to see that this position is coming to fruition, because it has been a number of years that we have suggested how important perhaps a coordinator could be working with the commission.”
She said she brought it up a few years ago, and recalls Kellogg saying he did not see it as an effective use of the town’s money and that the majority of Republicans voted it down.
“I’m glad to see now that the role fits exactly what we had talked about, good on you for that,” Martin said to Kellogg.
“My philosophy has always been pretty consistent,” Kellogg said. “What I did not want to do in years past was throw money at a problem without understanding it. I thought we had a lot of work to do to get our house in order and to really look at process and structure, and roles and responsibilities, who is doing what.”
The first selectman said he now believes the town is positioned for success when, in prior years, a new director would have been set up for failure.
Kellogg said creation of the new position coincides with the Planning and Zoning Commission reviewing and updating the town’s regulations.
“Our most important job is to create the right environment for these businesses to thrive and to grow and for businesses and developers to want to come to Monroe,” he said. “I’m pleased because I get more stories from people who say, ‘hey, this was a good experience.'”
Council Vice Chairman Sean O’Rourke said he understood Kellogg’s timing in deciding to create the community and economic development director position, recalling a time when Kellogg said it is hard to market a product before it’s ready for market.
Councilman Tony Scott said, “I was on EDC the last time we had the coordinator role in this town and, at that point in time, the juice might not have necessarily been worth the squeeze.”
But Scott said that was two administrations ago and work has since been done to warrant bringing the position back. He expressed optimism to see what it brings to town over the next couple years.
Martin asked Holsworth what he sees as his role in working with the EDC.
Holsworth said he sees himself as an internal partner to the EDC, working with town departments and the Planning and Zoning Commission on business issues.
“I view myself almost as a relationship manager and a conduit, making those things work as smoothly as possible,” he said.
If there is ever a difference in philosophy between the director and the commission, Martin asked how they would resolve that.
“I think there would be a discussion,” Holsworth said. “I think it would depend on the situation. We would review it and try to find the best way to resolve it, preferably in the best interests of town businesses and the grand list.”